Who were the Celts?
From around 750 BC to 12 BC, the Celts were the most powerful people in central and northern Europe. There were many groups (tribes) of Celts, speaking a vaguely common language.
The word Celt comes from the Greek
word, Keltoi, which means barbarians and is properly pronounced as "Kelt".
No-one called the people living in Britain during the Iron Age, Celts until the eighteenth century. In fact the Romans called these people Britons, not Celts. The name Celts is a 'modern' name and is used to collectively describe all the many tribes of people living during the Iron Age.
When did the Celts live in Europe?
The Iron Age Celts lived here 750 years before Jesus was born. The Iron Age ended in AD43 (43 years after Jesus was born) when the Romans invaded Britain.
Why are the Celts called Iron Age Celts?
The period of time in Britain immediately before the Roman period
is known as the Iron Age. The name 'Iron Age' comes from the discovery of a new metal called iron. The Celts found out how to make iron tools and weapons.
Before the Iron
Age the only metal used in Britain to make tools was bronze, which is an alloy of
copper and tin (hence the Bronze Age).
Where did the Celts come from?
The Celts lived across most of Europe during the Iron Age.
Several hundred years before Julius Caesar, they occupied many parts of central and western Europe, especially what are now Austria, Switzerland, southern France and Spain. Over several years, in wave after wave, they spread outwards, taking over France and Belgium, and crossing to Britain.
Northwest Europe was dominated by three main Celtic groups:
- the Gauls
- the Britons
- the Gaels
People visiting Britain wrote of their impressions of the people and things they saw. Many of these reports are biased.
"Most of the inland inhabitants [of Britain] do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britons indeed, dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish colour, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip. "
Julius Caesar (A Roman Emperor)
Much of what Caesar wrote about has since been proved wrong. First, we know that, early Britons did sow corn. Their ancestors had been farming for hundreds of years. Second, they weren't clad in skins. The Bronze Age introduced sewing implements that made it possible to tailor clothing. Third, not every Britain covered themselves in woad.
"They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others - especially those of high rank - shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth"
Diodorus Siculus (A Roman historian)
You can read more reports on our other Celt pages using the links on the left handside of this page.